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Entries in DreamWorks Animation (4)

Thursday
Jun122014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

If you’ve seen all their movies, it should go without saying that DreamWorks Animation is not the most consistent animation studio in the world. For every terrific film they make like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” they make equally bad movies like “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar.” Watching them in order of their release is like riding a roller coaster full of gigantic peaks and very low valleys. They always lagged behind Pixar for a number of reasons, but with the release of 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” it seemed like they were finally catching up. It was their most beautiful and mature film to date and, though it had some problems, it was perhaps the first time you could visualize DreamWorks nipping on Pixar’s heels. Its sequel is good, but less successful, even if it does retain the same aspects that made the original so good.

The film once again takes place in Berk, the best kept secret this side of “well, anywhere,” as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explains. Since the last film, his people have learned to tame and live alongside dragons, domesticating them as pets and using them to help with their everyday lives. Hiccup, along with his dragon, Toothless, tasks himself with charting the surrounding areas, since the ability to fly gives him a greater ability to travel long distances. On an adventure one day, he runs into Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper working for the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is rounding up dragons to build an army and using them to take over the land. Hiccup, having already changed the minds of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the people of Berk about dragons, sets out to do the same to Drago.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” has one very clear deficiency: its story is rushed. There’s a revelation about Hiccup’s past regarding someone missing from his life, which is introduced through minor dialogue, only to be explained, explored and resolved just as quickly after. There’s no real emotion behind Hiccup’s character, so little drama comes through, even when the film takes dramatic detours and plays out huge events that will change Hiccup’s life forever. When it looks like one of these moments will work, the film doesn’t linger on it enough for it to resonate. Simply put, Hiccup by himself just isn’t a very interesting character.

Luckily, he has Toothless. Much of the fun of the film is watching the dragons frolic in the background like caffeinated puppies, chasing each other and rolling around on the ground, while the human characters speak in the foreground. This gives the film a playful charm—even if these moments do ultimately serve to distract from the story at hand—but when Hiccup and Toothless are together and away from these diversions, the film is at its best. As they soar through the clouds, each defending the other from any perils they come across, their bond grows. They trust each other, as evidenced by Hiccup’s reckless attempts to fly himself with a makeshift wingsuit, and the natural majesty of the beautiful flying scenes (which are enhanced by the 3D, one of the only times the format has benefitted its host film) really make their companionship special.

Of course, this is still a DreamWorks animated movie, so it still relies heavily on silly humor to push it along, doing its best to negate its overbearing drama, and it mostly succeeds. There are some genuinely amusing jokes here, including those of the “pay attention or you’ll miss it” variety, like the Vikings humorously exclaiming “Oh my gods!” when something exciting happens. While this isn’t the funniest movie in the world, its humor keeps things lighthearted enough to spice up some of its duller moments.

But it all comes back to the poorly handled story. The entire thing is generally sloppy, failing even to follow its own internal logic. “He can’t fly by himself!” Hiccup yells when Toothless is left falling to the ground; that is except for all those other times before and after that he does. Because of issues like this, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a clear step down from its predecessor, which is par for the course for most sequels, yet its world is vibrant and wonderful, brimming with exciting stories that could be told. Future sequels will inevitably take advantage of that fact. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” while still a solid adventure, stumbles too much to make much of an impression.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 receives 3/5

Thursday
May262011

Kung Fu Panda 2

It has been an underwhelming year so far at the movies. By this time last year, I had given out a good number of perfect or near perfect scores, but 2011 has disappointed me. Films like Rango and Source Code have stood proud as the best this year has offered, yet neither of them were truly great. I’ve been waiting many months for a movie to come along and really impress me, something that can make me laugh, cry and excite me all at the same time. That movie has finally come in the form of Kung Fu Panda 2. It’s a tour de force, a real achievement in not just animation, but filmmaking in general and it proves once and for all that animation can be just as funny, unique and emotionally gripping as live action cinema. Let’s just put it this way. If this were released last year, Toy Story 3 would have had a run for its money.

When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he was learning to be a kung fu master. He was inexplicably deemed the Dragon Warrior and was tasked with the responsibility of defeating an impending evil heading his way. Because of his large stature and clumsy mannerisms, he was ridiculed by the Furious Five, who refused to believe he held the power to protect their people. They were wrong, of course, and now Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) have accepted them into their clan. But a kung fu warrior’s work is never done and a new evil has emerged in the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock determined to take over China.

It must be said that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel of the “if it ain’t broke…” variety. The original film was a solid piece of work in itself and it would be foolish to mess with the formula too much. However, just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made better and that’s precisely what was done here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is funnier and more exciting than the original and its heart seems to have grown tenfold.

Throughout this film’s brief hour and a half runtime, Po goes on a journey of self discovery that is more profound than anything presented in the first movie. As he ventures into battle, he begins to have visions of his family, giving him a desire to learn who he is and where he came from. His discoveries aren’t always pleasant, however, which gives the film an unexpected darker tone than its predecessor. It deals with the idea of making the right choice, even if it’s not the easy one. To elaborate would constitute spoilers, but you will undoubtedly feel sadness for Po as he learns the inescapable truth of his past.

That’s not to say Kung Fu Panda 2 is all dark. It still retains the playful exuberance that made the first movie so darn enjoyable. Also returning is the vibrant and distinctive animation (even when obfuscated by the 3D glasses) that seamlessly transitions from lush computer animation to hand drawn sequences that appropriately elicit the feeling of Chinese shadow puppetry. Perhaps best of all is that the characters are just as charming as you remember. Po is still the awkward, hunger fueled jokester you remember him as. He’s just a little more agile and skilled than before. He also shows more confidence, having been accepted as a legitimate kung fu master, and isn’t afraid to spout off one-liners that are hilariously used to parody various action movie clichés.

The Furious Five that accompany Po are better handled as well. Rather than endlessly make fun of him as they did in the first film, they now see him as a part of their family. It creates a sense of camaraderie among the crew and gives them more sympathetic personalities. The most surprising character, however, comes in the form of Lord Shen, who at first glance is too graceful to be threatening—after all, a peacock isn’t the most ferocious animal on the planet—but looks can be deceiving. He may not have the physical presence of the last film’s antagonist, but he is nevertheless ruthless and destructive. He delights in chaos and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s a cold, calculated approach to villainy, just one of many aspects the filmmakers have carefully thought through.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a wonderful movie. It works on so many different levels, from the pleasing aesthetics to the unbelievable action, that it’s practically guaranteed to please everybody who watches it. While the children they bring will surely enjoy it, adults in the audience may find something deeper hidden in what looks like an otherwise simple tale. To summarize this review, Kung Fu Panda 2 is flat out amazing.

Kung Fu Panda 2 receives 5/5

Friday
Nov052010

Megamind

DreamWorks Animation is one of the most hit-and-miss production studios in Hollywood. When you sit down for one of their movies, you never know whether you’re going to get garbage or quality. Sometimes you’ll get a fun, funny, smart adventure like Shrek or Monsters vs. Aliens and other times you’ll get a vapid, deadening nothing of a film like Bee Movie or Madagascar. Their last effort, How to Train Your Dragon, was more like the former. It was their best and most mature film to date and it had many critics believing that Pixar now had some serious competition in DreamWorks. Those critics may be changing their tune after Megamind.

The movie begins as an homage to (or a rip-off of—I can’t decide which) Superman: The Movie. Megamind’s (Will Ferrell) planet is crumbling and his parents have decided to blast him off towards Earth before they all perish. However, a family on a neighboring planet has done the same thing with their child, a kid who will grow up to be known as Metro Man (Brad Pitt). To Megamind, it seemed like he was always destined for evil. Whereas Metro Man landed at the front steps of a wealthy, classy family, he landed in the middle of the Metro City jail and learned how to be bad. Now he has a rivalry with Metro Man and is determined to defeat him no matter what.

Megamind is a more comedic version of Superman in animated form. It makes no effort to hide the fact that it’s borrowing liberally from that storied franchise, complete with the beautiful Lois Lane like reporter named Roxanne (Tina Fey), who has been kidnapped by Megamind more times than she can count. They even make Metro Man a Christ-like figure, a comparison made subtly in Superman, but harshly brought forward here by giving him the ability to walk on water.

Oddly enough, this is the stuff that works best. The spoof aspect of superhero tropes and traditions is well thought out and quite funny. The knowing references to the witty banter that occurs between a hero and his arch-nemesis during battle are clever, but there’s simply not enough of it.

What the rest of the film resorts to are worn down slapstick gags and idiotic one-liners that I imagine will appeal mostly to the younger ones in the audience. The voice talent is wasted with this silly material and they do little to make the experience worthwhile, with the exception of one particularly funny bit where Will Ferrell mimics Marlon Brando. The rest of the time, he’s mispronouncing words for no apparent reason and raising his voice so we are aware that it is indeed him.

In fact, the funniest parts of the movie are the sight gags, like an Obama-esque poster of Megamind as he rules over the city that says “No You Can’t” and a quick nod towards the original Donkey Kong game, which is a testament to the talented animators at DreamWorks. The problem with this movie is not the animation. It’s the lack of creativity and bland writing. That was the case for many of DreamWorks Animation's previous movies. Such is the case with Megamind.

Compared to How to Train Your Dragon or pretty much any Pixar movie, Megamind is weak. Whereas those movies reached out to the adults, this one is for the kids. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how few choices there are for children at the movies these days, it’s also what keeps it from reaching its full potential. The basic messages about good and evil and learning from your mistakes are noble, but they offer nothing adults don’t already know. Although I don’t judge movies on whether or not they’ll work for their intended audience, I suspect Megamind will, but it didn’t for me.

Megamind receives 1.5/5

Friday
Mar262010

How to Train Your Dragon

There's no denying that the king of computer animation is Pixar. That juggernaut has released 10 movies and all have been good. Their track record truly is amazing. DreamWorks, on the other hand, hasn't fared so well. After two solid films in Antz and Shrek, they went downhill quickly, releasing junk like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie and the two Madagascar pictures. They redeemed themselves a tad with Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs. Aliens, but their newest film, How to Train Your Dragon, may very well be their best. They still have a long way to go before they start nipping at the heels of the folks at Pixar, but this is a step in the right direction.

The film takes place in a village where Vikings rule. For hundreds of years, these Vikings have been at war with the local dragons who come to their land, burn down their houses and steal their livestock. To these people, dragon hunting is the most admirable thing you can do and those who do it earn the most respect. The leader of the warriors goes by the name of Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), a man who finds shame in his puny son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) because he has never amounted to anything. Hiccup desperately wants to be accepted and wants to kill a dragon to prove himself, but his weak stature doesn't allow him to. One day, however, he lands a hit on the most dangerous dragon of them all, a Night Fury, but can't bring himself to kill it. Instead, he lets it loose, but its tail is severely damaged and it loses the ability of flight. Hiccup bonds with the dragon, whom he names Toothless, and creates an artificial tail to help aid him. He quickly learns that dragons aren't dangerous creatures at all and, with the help of Toothless, tries to convince his village the same.

Story-wise, How to Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks most complete film to date. It hits a range of emotions they previously could have only hoped for. Like a Pixar film, this movie creates a distinct relationship between its two characters, in this case Hiccup and the dragon, and you come to appreciate their bonding. Toothless is like a stray dog who wants to be loved, but is wary of anybody offering it because he simply isn't used to it. He looks at Hiccup as he approaches him, all tied up in the projectile net, desperate and afraid. After Hiccup releases him, he attacks him based on the assumption that Hiccup means harm. It isn't until he spends time with him that he starts to let his guard down. It's truly amazing how much emotion seeps through this creature just by the way he looks at Hiccup. His character development rivals everybody else in the movie and you see him grow throughout.

The bond they create is the crutch of the film. You'll love them as soon as they start to love each other. Despite its colorful nature and appeal to children, its the drama that comes through the best. You'll care about the characters, sympathize with them and fear for their plight. It's the humor that doesn't necessarily work.

Much like most animated features, How to Train Your Dragon tries real hard to produce laughs, but it feels more strained here than in others. I wouldn't say this is a dark film, but it's not exactly happy-go-lucky either and deals with rejection, loneliness and crippling injury, both to humans and animals. However, it doesn't go all the way. Nobody dies in this movie. When the dragons shoot their fire, the humans jump out of the way and it passes right by. Due to what I assume is fear of excluding children, the film is toned down in every area, which includes its forced humor to lighten the tension. None of it works. Had it gone a more adult route and had the chutzpah to show the violence and drama unfold more naturally, this would be a modern day adult animated masterpiece.

It doesn't quite reach that height, but it's a solid tale nevertheless. The animation is beautiful, the close-to-being-overdone 3D works magic and the voice acting is wonderful. Despite a few too many recognizable voices from the likes of Jonah Hill, Butler and Baruchel, who just recently starred in She's Out of My League, they fit their characters well and by the time you reach the high flying, pulse pounding climax, you will have forgotten that there were actual people voicing these characters, though it does take a bit of time to get to that point.

I've always been a person fascinated with flight. Ask me who my favorite superhero is, I'll tell you Superman and I'm astonished when someone in a window seat on an airplane puts the cover down so they can't see out the window. Being up that high and being able to soar through the clouds holds a sense of wonder for me. It's a sight so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. Perhaps this is why I loved How to Train Your Dragon, because it tells a story not always through dialogue, but through flight showing how their friendship develops while they are in mid-air swooping up and down and around. The beauty of these scenes is reason enough to buy a ticket. It may not be the next Wall-E or Finding Nemo, but it's a pleasurable diversion that promises a more promising future from DreamWorks.

How to Train Your Dragon receives 4/5